Nearly one in 25 people in a county of the Uyghur heartland of China has been sentenced to prison on terrorism-related charges, in what is the highest known imprisonment rate in the world, an Associated Press review of leaked data shows.
A list obtained and partially verified by the Associated Press cites the names of more than 10,000 Uyghurs sent to prison in just Konasheher county, one of dozens in southern Xinjiang. In recent years, China has waged a brutal crackdown on the Uyghurs, a largely Muslim minority, which it has described as a “war on terror”.
The list is by far the biggest to emerge to date with the names of imprisoned Uyghurs, reflecting the sheer size of a Chinese government campaign that swept an estimated million or more people into internment camps and prisons. It also confirms what families and rights groups have said for years: China is relying on a system of long-term incarceration to keep the Uyghurs in check, wielding the law as a weapon of repression.
Under searing international criticism, Chinese officials announced the closure in 2019 of short-term, extrajudicial internment camps where Uyghurs were thrown in without charges. However, although attention focused on the camps, thousands of Uyghurs still languish for years or even decades in prison on what experts say are trumped-up charges of terrorism.
Konasheher county is typical of rural southern Xinjiang, and more than 267,000 people live there. The prison sentences across the county were for two to 25 years, with an average of nine years, the list shows. While the people on the list were mostly arrested in 2017, according to Uyghurs in exile, their sentences are so long that the vast majority would still be in prison.
Those swept up came from all walks of life, and included men, women, young people and elderly people. They had only one thing in common: they were all Uyghurs.
Experts say it clearly shows people were targeted simply for being Uyghur – a conclusion vehemently denied by Chinese authorities. Xinjiang spokesman Elijan Anayat said sentences were carried out in accordance with the law.
“We will never specifically target specific regions, ethnic groups, religions, much less the Uyghurs,” Anayat said. “We will never wrong the good, nor release the bad.”
The list was obtained by Xinjiang scholar Gene Bunin from an anonymous source who described themselves as a member of China’s Han Chinese majority “opposed to the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang”. It was passed to the AP by Abduweli Ayup, an exiled Uyghur linguist in Norway. The AP authenticated it through interviews with eight Uyghurs who recognised 194 people on the list, as well as legal notices, recordings of phone calls with Chinese officials and checks of address, birthdays and identity numbers.
The list does not include people with typical criminal charges such as homicide or theft. Rather, it focuses on offences related to terrorism, religious extremism or vague charges traditionally used against political dissidents, such as “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”. This means the true number of people imprisoned is almost certainly higher.
But even at a conservative estimate, Konasheher county’s imprisonment rate is more than 10 times higher than that of the United States, one of the world’s leading jailers, according to Department of Justice statistics. It’s also more than 30 times higher than for China as a whole, according to state statistics from 2013, the last time such figures were released.
Darren Byler, an expert on Xinjiang’s mass incarceration system, said most arrests were arbitrary and outside the law, with people detained for having relatives abroad or downloading certain mobile phone applications.
“It is really remarkable,” Byler said. “In no other location have we seen entire populations of people be described as terrorists or seen as terrorists.”
China is using the law “as a fig leaf of legality” in part to try to deflect international criticism about holding Uyghurs, said Jeremy Daum, a criminal law expert at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Center.
The secretive nature of the charges against those imprisoned is a red flag, experts say. Although China makes legal records easily accessible otherwise, almost 90% of criminal records in Xinjiang are not public. The handful which have leaked show that people are being charged with “terrorism” for acts such as warning colleagues against watching porn and swearing, or praying in prison.